Wednesday, February 11, 2015

"You can't do that! You're an adult!"

So, this happens a lot: Miss V and I are driving home from her high school. A song comes on the radio, and since Miss V loves to sing along to music in the car, I already know the lyrics by heart. So I grin and begin solemnly quoting the song's lyrics as though I were reciting immortal poetry. 90% of the time, I get this exasperated response: "Soo-ZEE! Stop doing that!"

Yes, I admit I get an unholy joy out of teasing V -- in part because my mother used to do the same thing to me when I was a teenager, and I was just as exasperated with her behavior as V is with mine. Maybe 20+ years from now, one of V's kids will be rolling her eyes and muttering, "Mo-oooom..." as V gleefully perpetuates the cycle of teasing. (I hope so, anyway.)

My mom loved to tease her teenagers. She'd mortify my brothers by putting an arm around their shoulders in public, or she'd begin dancing goofily in the kitchen, gyrating her hips to our music in a deliberate attempt to make us cringe. (It worked.) She also had moments of unexpected spontaneity. One blisteringly hot Utah summer day during my teen years, Mom lost all patience with making dinner. She went out and bought an angel-food cake, a canister of whipped cream and a whole lot of strawberries, which she macerated with sugar. That night was the first of several annual Strawberry Shortcake And Nothing Else nights.

I suspect that sometimes Mom did goofy, spontaneous things as a coping mechanism, handling the stress of being a single parent of multiple depressed, hormonal teenagers. Captain Midnight and I love Miss V dearly and will miss her keenly when she goes to college, but we can tell you that it's sometimes difficult to be an adult with a teenager in the house. Set aside the issues of dealing with hormonal mood swings; your behavior is more or less constantly being second-guessed. If you feel like doing some goofball thing, the teen will complain, "You can't do that! You're an adult," suggesting that your current behavior possesses insufficient gravitas for someone of your advanced age; on the other hand, if you do your best to behave in a mature fashion befitting your generation, the teen will conclude that you are completely out of touch and incapable of understanding what it's like to be a teenager.

And you know, in some ways, the teen isn't wrong. I don't know what it's like to be a teenager in 2015. I've never had to deal with the specific set of pressures and problems that Miss V is facing now. My experience with modern teenhood is limited to the secondhand knowledge I pick up from her after-school comments in the car.

But I do know what it's like to be between the ages of thirteen and nineteen, because I've already gone through those years. And because I was a teenager once, I know that some aspects of being a teen haven't changed. I've never had to deal with a friend who won't put down her smartphone, but I have had to deal with a friend who seemed incapable of paying attention. I never had a boy make deeply inappropriate sexual comments to me, but I had to deal with boys who gave me unwanted attention and harassment. And I didn't have to deal with peers constantly dropping the F-bomb in high school. Instead, I dealt with peers constantly dropping the F-bomb in junior high. I felt crazy and high on hormones, I experimented with my hair and makeup, I was nervous about eating in front of people, I obsessed about being too fat, I pulled all-nighters and fell asleep in class, I had heartrending crushes, I came unglued over every zit. And yes, I dealt firsthand with anxiety, crushing depression and what I now realize was mild attention deficit disorder -- all without the help of medications, because there weren't any available. I don't think my teen experience was better or worse, just different -- but it wasn't as different as most teens seem to think.

I wish I could explain to V in a way that resonates in her, to help her understand that many adults don't grow out of being passionate or excited or depressed or goofy. We're no longer ruled by hormones run amok (at least not at the moment; when I go through menopause, I'll get back to you), but we still possess the same intensity of feeling -- if anything, our feelings become deeper and more intense as we garner more life experiences and develop a stronger sense of compassion for others. Those feelings haven't gone away just because they aren't constantly simmering near the surface of our skins.

Granted, there are some valid reasons why adults shouldn't act like teenagers. Adults are expected to have gained a modicum of maturity, a sense that some behaviors are dangerous, and an understanding that they've already had their chance at being teenagers (I sincerely hope most adults recall their teen years well enough to remember why they shouldn't want to go through them again). When you choose not to use your life experiences to gauge whether your behavior is age-appropriate, you end up pulling the kinds of foolhardy stunts which fall under the general rubric of "mid-life crisis." And yes, when we parents or guardians do damaging things to ourselves or others, our teens are right to be embarrassed of us -- if we're not self-aware enough to feel shame at our own deeply inappropriate behavior, they are put into the awkward position of having to feel both their shame and ours. But if you don't struggle with unresolved mental health issues, a substance habit or an unhealthy fear of aging, you probably already have a good sense of what is or isn't age-appropriate, and when it's OK to cross the line and be silly.

And I think it's healthy to be silly once in a while, to goof off and tease. Not only is it good for us not to take ourselves too seriously, but I think it's important to show teens, by direct example, that adulthood -- while it certainly has its burdens -- is not something to dread. Sometimes we need to act our age, but we also need to know when it's OK to be spontaneous and goofy, when to make strawberry shortcake for dinner, when to tap into the sense of unselfconscious joy that should continue to be welcome inside us, whether at age fourteen or forty.

Physical bodies age. It's part of how we're designed. But souls don't have to grow old -- that inner fire continues to glow based solely on individual attitude. So why not throw a little kerosene on the fire once in a while?

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